The Waterloo Municipal Band took it from the top once again last Tuesday night, beginning its concert with a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that delighted the hundreds of people gathered in downtown Waterloo.
The opening number was particularly auspicious because it officially began the band’s 90th season.
“It’s an established tradition. What would a Waterloo summer be without Tuesday night band concerts,” municipal band co-director Matt Fisher said.
Waterloo has had a band in some form since the 1880s, when the Enterprise Band marched and performed at various local events.
When that group dispersed, citizens drummed up interest in having a town band.
One formed in late 1930, playing around town to get people excited enough that they would vote for a tax to fund a municipal band.
On the ballot was a tax of “one mill on the dollar,” the Waterloo Republican wrote in 1931. That was equal to about 10 cents for every hundred dollars on a real estate tax bill, meaning many homeowners at the time would have paid $1-3 per year.
“It is not the idea of paying the boys as individuals that the tax is proposed, but it means a better band for Waterloo,” the paper wrote.
The money would go toward more instruments like an oboe, bassoon and kettle drums, along with a larger library of songs.
In the midst of the Great Depression, the tax passed 449-350.
The band continued through difficult and prosperous times for the country, but the community support was unwavering.
Even during World War II, when the band’s size was cut in half because members were serving in the armed forces, the show continued.
“They went on. They didn’t always rehearse, but they went on,” band co-director Lois Waltz said.
The band does not have any members from those days, but its longest-tenured member, Tom Wightman, has been playing trumpet in the band for 68 years.
Wightman said he likes “just playing music.”
“I just enjoy being up there and being among all those talented musicians,” he said. “I always look forward to Tuesday nights.”
In Wightman’s heyday, the band would practice in what is now called the old courtroom of the courthouse.
Back then, he remembered people would stop by his business, Wightman’s Pharmacy, to get ice cream and sit on one of the half dozen makeshift benches made of a board balanced on two sawhorses to listen to the concerts.
Others would double park in their vehicles.
“Now, people come out there at 6 o’clock to get their chairs set up for an 8 o’clock concert,” Wightman said. “They’re all over the courthouse lawn. It’s just tremendous.”
Although they have existed for nearly a century, the audience for the concerts is still growing.
“We are amazed at the audience,” Waltz, who joined the band in 2005 and has been a co-director for six years, said. “In the last two or three years, the audience has really grown.”
“The Waterloo nightlife has helped with that, with Hopskeller (Brewing) and Stubborn (German) and everybody around,” Fisher added.
Both co-directors credited that growing interest to the skill of the musicians.
“It’s a testament to the quality of the musicians the group has and has had for many years,” Fisher, a band member since 2008 and director for six years, said.
“These are people who have done something else in their career, but they love music,” Waltz chipped in. “What better reason is there for wanting to join?”
The band has what the co-directors called a “wonderful” mix of young and old members, with Wightman being one end of the spectrum and high school students being on the other.
It also has guest conductors come in and share their expertise to the players.
But, especially after being unable to practice last year because of the pandemic and having only limited practices this year, the core members like Wightman are critical to the group’s success.
“All the people who are up there are there because they enjoy it, regardless of their talent,” Wightman said. “Some players are definitely better than others, but if you’ve got a core to work around, you can make some pretty good sounds come out.”
Wightman estimated the band has around 1,000 songs in its catalog, so even with weekly rehearsals during the winter it takes notable skill.
“To just pull one out and play it, it takes some talent to read that,” he said. The band is still exercising caution because of the novel coronavirus, so there are no plans yet for a 90th anniversary celebration – though one could still happen.
Even if no celebrations take place, the band will ensure its concerts are still special.
“It’s a regular big night in Waterloo,” Wightman said. “People have really accepted it. They come back every week. It’s really a lot of fun.”
The free concerts take place rain or shine every Tuesday from 8-9 p.m. and continue through Labor Day at the courthouse bandstand.